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The Hired Man At The Union Theatre Until 12th August
Review By Rosalind Freeborn
The Hired Man is a love story, set at the turn of the last century, amongst the rural fields, industrial towns and dangerous coal mines of northern England. In this moving musical, sensitively and imaginatively directed by Brendan Matthew, we follow the fortunes of men and women whose only hope of employment was to present themselves at regular fairs (the Job Centre of the day), eager to gain work on farms, in factories or take seasonal shifts.
This is a time before working men and women were protected by contracts and regulated pay or could appeal to Unions for support if they felt exploited. Life on the land was hard and poorly paid. The best option for a healthy man in the area was to be ‘condemned to the black rock’ – go down the mines which stretched far under the sea.
The Hired Man at the Union Theatre is a charming company piece with some excellent central performances. John and Emily Tallentire, are a young couple struggling to make ends meet as they expect their first child. Ifan Gwilym-Jones as John has a magnificent voice which conveys his yearning for a better life, his desire to work hard for his wife and daughter, despite his dream of a better life away from the mines; Rebecca Gilliland as Emily is feisty and witty and conjures through song the strength of a woman who not only wants to protect her family but is also vulnerable to the sweet attentions of another man, Jackson – well played by Luke Kelly – who tempts her to imagine a different kind of life. John discovers the brewing romance and fights Jackson. Emily realizes that her place is at home, with her husband, daughter and son.
May and Harry (the Tallentire children) are engagingly played by a fast-talking and amusing Kara Taylor Alberts and sweetly boyish Jack McNeill, who wants to follow his father down the mines, a notion which John abhors and expresses his fears through song – ‘What would you say to your son’.
So, having established stability, a pleasant enough life, enriched by close relationships with John’s two brothers, Isaac and Seth, both played with panache by Sam Pegg and Jonathan Carlton, a supportive community and a burgeoning Trade Union movement you might imagine we could be heading for a happy ending but no – it is 1914 and the men volunteer.
The scenes of farewell are beautifully played, and excellently sung with very moving harmonies, by the key roles supported by the able young company. Of course all audiences know exactly what lies ahead for the fresh-faced men and eager soldiers marching off to France who believe ‘it will all be over by Christmas’ and this only heightens the poignancy of departure.
Comprising of simple horizontal planks of wood with interior props, the set transforms through clever lighting into the quagmire of a Flanders trench where the men experience the hell and disaster of war. The violence and senseless loss of life is movingly acted out, almost in slow motion, enhanced by strong shadows and limited light.
When the War ends, life in Crossbridge seems to return to normal but each character has been altered and scarred by events.
The show is excellently supported by musical direction from Richard Bates (keyboard) with Sophia Goode (violin) and Dominic Veall (cello). The choreography by Charlotte Tooth is imaginative and lively.
The Hired Man is a very enjoyable and thought-provoking musical and well worth seeing.